‘Geisha paparazzi’ are back in Kyoto


Geisha and maiko (teenage apprentices training to become geisha) are women who perform Japanese traditional arts such as singing, dancing and playing instruments to entertain customers while they dine and drink.

Many of them work and reside in Gion, an elegant and historic quarter of Kyoto, one of Japan’s most popular tourist cities. When these women travel between work and home they must walk through the streets, a beautiful sight in their traditional kimonos and makeup.

However, the geishas’ commutes are also a tourist attraction, with throngs of visitors trying to snap photos of them as they make their way through the picturesque streets. As a result, an unfortunate nickname has even been given to these tourists: “geisha paparazzi.”

Foreign tourists have sometimes struggled to understand Japanese customs and etiquette. In 2015, Kyoto created pamphlets and paper handouts that used pictograms to illustrate travel “nuisance activities” like littering, using selfie sticks, smoking in prohibited areas, and taking photos of geisha and maiko.

But it was photography, especially “geisha paparazzi,” that proved the biggest headache, reaching a boiling point in 2019 when there were reports of badly behaved visitors tugging at women’s kimonos, chasing them around with cameras and smartphones, pulling out their hair ornaments (kanzashi) and even hitting them with cigarette butts. That year, Gion began putting up signs and notices prohibiting photography, warning that violators would face a fine.

But Isokazu Ota, representative secretary of the Gion-town South Side District Council, tells CNN that the “paparazzi” have gotten more brazen since the return of mass tourism to Japan after the pandemic.

Maiko participate in a bean festival in Kyoto. The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Maiko participate in a bean festival in Kyoto. The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

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